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How to Run a Virtual Classroom [T + D]
[December 15, 2011]

How to Run a Virtual Classroom [T + D]


(T + D Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Managing virtual classrooms requires a different approach to your learners, but by integrating some simple yet innovative tools, it's easy to get started.

"I hate e-learning," cried a top Silicon Valley chief learning officer. Her shocking remark opened a Sloan Foundation workshop at Stanford University in the Spring of 2011. Attended by some of the industry's most prominent learning executives, most echoed disenchantment with ubiquitous plug-and-play modules used by many Fortune 500 companies.

Today, innovative learning leaders are moving away rapidly from delivering isolating self-learning modules, turning instead to engaged, peer-to-peer electronic -mediated environments - virtual classrooms.

Why it works? Mirroring and extending face-to-face instruction, virtual classrooms give employees the chance to participate in live or asynchronous discussions with facilitators and co-workers, interacting in creative, knowledge-building ways.


While self-learning modules depend entirely on employees absorbing text and graphical elements on their own, personnel in virtual learning environments are engaged with instructors and peers in real-time or through discussion threads. The key is active communication, building motivation and involvement, rather than merely absorbing facts or processes by rote.

Without addinga new line item in your budget and without entering negotiations with vendors, very likely, you can set up a virtual classroom at your company today, exploiting currently installed commercial software or freely available open-source applications.

If your company provides you and your co-workers with a learning management system (J.MS), you probably have all the technical resources you'll need. LVISs usually house discussion forums where instructors and employees can easily post text messages (similar to exchanges on a listserv). And if you have access to chat rooms and webinar tools, you're ready to run a virtual classroom at your company now.

Guidelines Even without an LMS, you can run a stripped-down virtual classroom, just with email and teleconferencing. Or, if you're looking for more robust collaboration tools, search the web to download free groupware such as Drupal. Scaling-up with more sophisticated technologies - offered by many companies as part of a learning suite - you can introduce podcasts, video streaming, simulations, and, at the high end, the extraordinary experience of teleprescence.

Most interactive tools give you and your learners the ability to archive lectures, presentations, and even text discussions. Digitally captured, lessons can be revisited by those who may not have absorbed key points at first. Archiving also permits learners to check in afterwards to view recorded presentations they may have missed while away on assignment.

It's best to turn to your IT or training department to help you select the right communication tools. Of course some of these, email and teleconferencing for example, are commonly used, part of ever)' worker's routine practice, and naturally, do not require training. Others, with which you may be less familiar (chat, discussion forums, blogs, webinars, wikis, and social networks) may require some help to get you up and running.

If you're the instructor, the first thing you'll want to do is post a welcome message; for example: "Mi, My name is lane Smith, and I'm your instructor." At the start, it's best to let everyone know what the course is about, how you plan to run it, how much participation you expect, and how often and when the class will meet in real time, either by teleconference, Skype, or webcasting.

When they log in, learners should immediately access a brief description of your course; topics and lessons divided into modules by day or week; and your expectations for participation in discussions, postings, homework, group and individual assignments, and tests, among other tasks.

Since most virtual classes never actually meet face-to-face, it's helpful to post useful clues about who you are (your photo and your brief profile, especially). It's wise to encourage participants to post their photos and bios, too. It may seem counterintuitive, but learners in virtual classrooms say that they often grow closer to their peers online than in physical space, especially in corporate settings where everyone rushes off to the next assignment or to make a deadline. We've all experienced the peculiar feeling of sitting next to a co-worker for an entire course and at the end not knowing anything about her, not even her name.

If you run it right, you can reduce, and even eliminate, what virtualteam experts Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly call "virtual distance," which is a consequence of a number of potentially alienating factors - wide geographic separation and different cultural norms without a common standard of behavior. In Uniting the Virtual Workplace (Wiley, 2008), they say that building close relationships among workers at a distance is the single most important task.

Online, the most effective way of mitigating "virtual distance" is to stimulate peer-to-peer interaction. Assuming the role of facilitator in a text-based forum, you initiate discussion by posing a question about the topic being covered. If it's on target, your question will generate a trickle of responses at first, followed by others who may chime in commenting on earlier posts, some disagreeing with previous conclusions.

Virtual discussions can start with just a seed and grow into a giant discussion tree, branching and twigging in many directions. Your job, as a guide on the side - rather than a sage on the stage - is to enter occasionally when you see things straying or when you detect false claims or errors of fact. Otherwise, it's best to let participants learn from one another, expressing a wide range of opinion. At the close, say, at the end of the day or at the conclusion of a weeklong session, you'll wrap things up succinctly, pointing out essential takeaways.

Results Virtual classes take employees seriously, placing them at the center of learning, rather than at the periphery. Workers in virtual classrooms will be prepared for some of the most challenging experiences in modern corporate life. Apart from the content they need to know, as their jobs become more complex and demanding, they will learn how to engage with others using sophisticated communication technologies, and most critically, they will learn to act effectively in teams everywhere your company does business.

Virtual discussions can start with just a seed and grow into a giant discussion tree, branching and twigging in many directions. Your job, as a guide on the side, is to enter occasionally when you see things straying.

Checklist: Engaging virtual learners Educators claim that learners learn best when instructors offer virtual learners multiple ways of interacting.

* One-to-many. Typically, instructors deliver lectures or provide information about course concepts or give instruction covering assignments. Online, instruction can occur in a number ways, including webinars, printed materials, on websites, podcasts, message boards, and chat.

* One-to-one. Instructors frequently hold conversations with individual learners. In virtual classrooms, interaction can occur with email, phone, instant messaging, and other ways.

* Many-to-many. Classroom discussions, team projects, group presentations are examples of many-to-many communication. They can be held using email, message boards, chat, webinars, and collaborative tools, among other methods.

* Many-to-one. Team assignments often require participants to meet with the instructor to respond to questions. Chat, message boards, and email can be effective tools for these communications.

Resources: Essentials of Online Course Design, by Marjorie Vai and Kristen Sosulski (Routledge, 2011) Virtual Teamwork: Mastering the Art and Practice of Online Learning and Corporate Collaboration, edited by Robert Ubell (Wiley, 2010) Uniting the Virtual Workforce, by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly (Wiley, 2008) Quality Matters (2000) at http://www.qualitymatters.org "Choosing Online Collaborative Tools," by Phylise Banner, et al. in Virtual Teamwork, edited by Robert Ubell (Wiley, 2010) INTERESTED IN ORDERING E-PRINTS? Would a digital version of this article be a great fit for your nexl course, presentation, or event? Are you interested in e-prints of several T+D articles on a specific topic? Visit astd.org/TD/eprints for more information.

Robert Ubeil is i'iee president ofenierprise learning at NYU Polyteduiiclnstitiite; rubdl@pofy.edu.

(c) 2011 American Society for Training and Development

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